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Letter: Utilities-related bill supports local democracy, innovation

By David A. Hansen, Federated Rural Electric Board President

Ronald J. Schwartau, Nobles Cooperative Electric Board President

Sandy Ludeman, Lyon-Lincoln Electric Co-op Board President

Mark Sandberg, South Central Electric Board President

Bipartisan legislation is a topic that is important to our community. It passed the Minnesota Senate Finance Committee last week. This bill is important to communities like ours because it reduces the regulatory burden coming from St. Paul, while allowing locally elected decision makers to innovate in response to the unique needs of our community. The bill (HF 234) passed the House last month with broad bipartisan support, next the bill will head to the Senate floor for a vote before it is sent to the governor.

The legislation eliminates duplicate regulation by the Public Utilities Commission. Your local and democratically elected  cooperative board is best at balancing the interests among all cooperative members. This change is consistent with the rest of Minnesota law as it applies to consumer-owned utilities. The Public Utilities Commission balances the interests of investors in for-profit utilities and their ratepayers. The difference is that at consumer-owned utilities, like cooperatives, there are no investors, only member-owners and the Public Utilities Commission is not designed to balance local interests.

As the independent clean energy non-profit group, the Center for Energy and Environment, chronicled in a recent report titled “Minnesota's Electric Cooperatives: Laboratories of Utility Innovation,” local democracy has led to remarkable innovation at member-owned cooperative utilities. Instead of a lengthy and costly process in front of the Public Utilities Commission, member-owned cooperative utilities can respond quickly to the needs and wants of member-owners.

Your electric cooperative boards implemented money-saving demand response programs, like water heaters, dual fuel and energy-efficiency rebates. South Central Electric developed its own community solar program giving members a low cost renewable option. Federated Rural Electric and Nobles Cooperative Electric both installed 2.1 megawatt wind turbines back in 2008 as it made good financial sense for our members. In 2015, a 20 kW solar array was installed by Great River Energy at Nobles Cooperative Electric’s headquarters. This solar array and others are helping Great River Energy and its member cooperatives evaluate the impact of solar. Lyon-Lincoln also has a demonstration solar array. Our cooperatives have (or will soon have) Advanced Metering Infrastructure (two-way metering), which helps inform our members and gives them more control of how they use energy. These decisions were made locally without mandates or state approval to save members money and provide environmental benefits. Listening to our members and the ability to respond without outside interference means we can work together to come up with solutions to meet member needs now and into the future.

This important legislation makes no changes to net metering or how consumer-owned utilities operate when it comes to distributed generation (wind and solar). However, the legislation does require cooperatives to provide independent third party mediation for issues that may arise around distributed generation. The legislation also permits the Public Utilities Commission to review the grid access charges authorized by the legislature in 2015.

We support this legislation because we are member-owners of our local cooperatives. As your locally elected representatives on our cooperative boards, we know firsthand the importance of listening to members, local ownership, local democracy, and innovation.  Please join us in asking the Governor to sign this important legislation supporting our community; visit his website to send an email (http://mn.gov/governor/contact-us/form/) or call 1- 800-657-3717.

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